As top American officials and a former Navy SEAL who was on the raid that killed Osama bin Laden grapple over whether the al Qaeda leader "resisted" before he was shot, the ex-SEAL said in a recent interview that in the heat of battle, the men on the ground weren't going to take any chances with their target.
In a firsthand account of the May 2011 raid, written under the pseudonym Mark Owen, the former Navy SEAL Team Six member who was right behind the "point man" who first shot Osama bin Laden said that before they took off for bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the commandos were told that it was not a kill-only mission.
"A lawyer from either the Department of Defense or the White House made it clear that this wasn't an assassination," Owen writes in his book, "No Easy Day." "'If he is naked with his hands up, you're not going to engage him,' he told us. 'I am not going to tell you how to do your job. What we're saying is if he does not pose a threat, you will detain him.'"
But later in the book, Owen writes that bin Laden was shot the second he poked his head out of a door frame, apparently before he had a chance to resist or present a visible threat. At the time, Owen said he didn't know who his teammate's bullets had hit, if anyone.
"We were less than five steps from getting to the top [of the stairs] when I heard suppressed shots," Owen writes. "BOP. BOP. The point man had seen a man peeking out of the door on the right side of the hallway about ten feet in front of him. I couldn't tell from my position if the rounds hit the target or not. The man disappeared into the dark room."
It wasn't until other members of the team entered the room and saw a man twitching on the ground that they realized he had been hit in the head. Then, after shooting the man in the chest a few more times until he stopped moving, they realized it was bin Laden, the book says. America's most wanted man was unarmed and though there was a rifle and a handgun in a room nearby, neither had a bullet loaded in the chamber.
"He hadn't even prepared a defense. He had no intention of fighting," Owen writes.
In a recent interview with CBS News' "60 Minutes," Owen explained why the shot was taken apparently before the man presented a direct, visible threat. He said the team had already been in a short firefight in another part of the compound, an AK-47 assault rifle had been found right next to one of bin Laden's sons who had just been killed and, due to a delay in getting the team inside the compound, bin Laden had already had plenty of time to arm himself or strap on a suicide vest.
"All those boxes had been checked [so] that if a guy sticks his head around the corner, he could very easily have a gun," Owen said. "You don't wait [for him to] get that AK or get that grenade thrown down the hall or that suicide vest. So in that split second, that's when [the point man] engaged."
As for why Owen and another SEAL opened fire on bin Laden as he lay on the ground, Owen said they could not see bin Laden's hands and were concerned he could still be hiding a grenade.
Owen's book has sparked controversy both for the discrepancies between his story and the "official" version as told by the White House in which bin Laden "resisted," as well as his decision to write and publish the book without first allowing government officials to vet it for classified information.
Owen and his publisher, Dutton, maintain that the book was vetted by a former special operations attorney and discloses no sensitive information, but last week the Pentagon said it disagreed and was considering legal action against Owen. Owen left the service in April.